Following their undercover bust of "China Wenzhou Yueqing Marine Organisms Health Protection Foods Co Ltd," a massive slaughterhouse and processing plant for three species of endangered shark, WildLifeRisk co-directors Paul Hilton and Alex Hofford identify the township of Puqi, where the factory is located, as the "epicenter" of the Chinese shark trade. The global trade network is suspected to be the largest in the world.
The Chinese government has yet to respond to the explosive report.
According to the South China Morning Post, Hofford claims he saw five or six shark processing plants during his two undercover trips to Puqi, which is located in Zhejiang province. He and Hilton say the town is the "most efficient place" for the shark trade because of its location at the midpoint of the Chinese coastline; whale sharks can be transported to Puqi by refrigerated truck from anywhere along China's coast in just three days. WildLifeRisk says Li's factory has a network of agents in coastal towns who purchase whale sharks -- caught intentionally or as bycatch -- for an average of 200,000 yuan each (approximately $31,000).
The sharks' most lucrative byproduct is oil from their livers, which is exported to the U.S., Canada, New Zealand and several European countries for use in cosmetics and health supplements. WildLifeRisk discovered that Li's company actually processes its shark oil at another plant, Hainan Jiahua Marine Products Bio-Pharmaceutical Company, on China's Hainan Island. The shark fins and skins processed at Li's factory are more often sold as food for Chinese restaurants and as leather for bags, respectively. According to WildLifeRescue's undercover footage, many of the factory's shark products were being labeled as tilapia.
China does not have a ban on shark hunting, but it is illegal to hunt endangered shark species without a permit from the government. Shark hunting is banned in all other west Pacific countries with the exception of Japan, but, Hofford says, whale sharks are regularly caught in waters off the Philippines, Indonesia and Mexico before they are sent to Puqi for processing. It's highly unlikely that fishermen obtain the necessary permits to conduct these shark hunts, "due to the informality of the trade and the complex transport routes," the WildLifeRisk co-founders say. They've also expressed doubt that any of the shark catches go through customs.
May Mei, the China program director for WildAid, which works to end the illegal wildlife trade worldwide, agreed. In an interview with the New York Times, Mei blamed a lack of official oversight and education for China's endangered shark trade. "Our control system just isn't good enough," she said. "And we have to teach fishermen what's protected and what's not. Supervision at all levels has to improve, including at customs departments."
Mei called the report "convincing," saying that even "[d]omestic Chinese media are pretty shocked, too."
As The Dodo reported yesterday, China is a signatory to the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), meaning the government has agreed to subject selected species to certain controls on imports and exports; WildLifeRisk says these controls are not being enforced for endangered sharks. Whale sharks and basking sharks, two of the species routinely slaughtered in Li's factory, are included in CITES Appendix II, which means that although the animals are not threatened with imminent extinction, populations are at risk. CITES stipulates that trade for these species must be controlled "in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival."
Chinese officials have not announced plans close Li's factory, and it is unknown what steps will be taken to end the illegal shark trade out of Puqi. Hilton and Hofford say there needs to be greater awareness of what happens in shark processing plants and of what sharks are being slaughtered, legally or not.
"If we hope to save species such as the whale shark from extinction," they conclude at the end of their report, "we must hold individuals accountable for violation of international protection laws and demand transparency so that consumers can make educated decisions about the products that they buy."
You can watch clips from WildLifeRisk's undercover footage below. [WARNING: graphic images.]